Cell Phones Can Tell If You're Depressed, Says New Study, Which Has Some Pretty Important Implications

It can be hard for people experiencing depression to recognize that, in fact, that's what's happening, but something unexpected might be able to help make identifying it easier: Your phone. According to a new study, cell phones can identify when an individual is depressed — or rather, the way you use your phone can be an indication of depression. Still, I guess smart phones are even smarter than we thought! Here's the breakdown of the new research:

The Study:

In the new study, a mobile app ambiguously called "Purple Robot" was installed on the participants' phones for two weeks. During those two weeks, the app collected data on phone usage and GPS. Half of the participants had mild to severe depression, while half were depression free. Seems simple, right?

The Results:

So what did scientists find when they looked at the data? Well, it turns out that the people who had depression not only moved around less, according to the GPS data, but they also use their phones a lot more — four times more, to be exact. People without depression used their phones an average of 17 minutes per day, while people with depression used their phones an average of 68 minutes per day. 

“The significance of this is we can detect if a person has depressive symptoms and the severity of those symptoms without asking them any questions,” senior author David Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explained in a press release. “We now have an objective measure of behavior related to depression. And we’re detecting it passively. Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user,”

All of that is awesome; however, I still find myself a little skeptical of their numbers. I (fortunately) have literally none of the symptoms of depression, but I use my phone way, way more than 14 minutes a day. In fact, I would actually guess that 68 minutes a day might be a good estimate for my daily phone usage. Of course, I am slightly younger than the participants in this study (the average age was 28), but the researchers might want to further investigate those numbers to see if they hold true across multiple studies.

Still, if we are someday able to use phone data as part of a depression diagnosis, that would be pretty awesome. Because the symptoms of depression are largely invisible, doctors have to rely on patients to communicate what they are thinking or feeling effectively in order to make a diagnosis, but if there were also numbers they could look at as well, that could make diagnoses that much more accurate. And that is pretty cool. 

Images: tobi.mattingly/Flickr; Giphy

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